The Brand of Ethiopia

November 21, 2012

By Gabrielle. Photos by Diana Prichard.

I’ve got a big post for you today. I’m going to talk to you about branding. And J.Crew scarves. And then I’m going to ask you to sign a petition. But first, I’ve got a beautiful video that ONE made of our week in Ethiopia (spoiler: I cry in the video).

Wasn’t that beautiful?! It makes me so homesick for the people we met.

And now, back to branding and scarves. : ) On our last day, we visited a textile company called Muya. We visited a small scarf factory earlier in the week (that I still haven’t properly told you about), but this was a much bigger place. Muya was amazing! To demonstrate what is amazing about it, I’ll start with some facts about Ethiopian weavers.

- Weaving is considered a male skill and weavers are almost exclusively male. Spinning is traditionally done by the women. It’s been hard for Ethiopians to move past these cultural norms.

- Weavers build their looms by hand, and the looms are made to be mobile. So the weaver can carry the loom to find work — nomadic style.

- When they set up a loom, a traditional weaver will dig a hole beneath the set-up for his feet, and the weaver will literally spend all day toiling in the dirt.

- Weavers are considered very low in social stature. If there was a caste system, they would be almost rock-bottom. The only vocations that are lower are blacksmiths and tanners.

- A weaver typically makes about 300-400 Birr per month. (100 Birr is about $5.50) This is not a livable wage.

But Ethiopian cotton is excellent. And the textiles Ethiopians produce are stunning. Enter: Muya.

Muya is an Ethiopian company founded by a woman, and run by a French man and a Greek man. Muya provides a safe, stable place for weavers to work, so that parents don’t have to leave the city (and their families) to earn money. Not surprisingly, outside their gates every morning, they have a line of weavers looking for work. Muya understands the idea that another way to feed the people of Ethiopia is to sell these artisan products created in Ethiopia by Ethiopians.

Other notes of admiration I made about Muya:

- A Muya weaver earns 1500 Birr/month. And when their skills increase and they get faster, they can earn up to 4000 Birr/month.

- They also pay well for hand work, which is done almost entirely by women. The fringe, the sewing, the ironing, the washing — it’s all done by hand.

- They currently have 200 weavers working in-house, and 200 that are outsourced. They were able to train 100 of those weavers with financing from USAID.

- They are planning for 300 more in 2 years and are currently building a bigger facility to house all the looms.

- Muya has developed a new loom. It’s not portable, but it’s easier and less expensive to make, keeps weavers out of the dirt, and allows more people to be trained to weave.

-  But they don’t force the new looms. They have master weavers that still use their own looms. One is even a woman!

- Do you recognize the name LemLem? Their line is carried by J.Crew and the pieces are made at Muya. We saw the actual cloth being woven before our eyes and it was fun to imagine those pieces being purchased by our friends back home.

- 85% of the scarves they make go to America.

- Muya values Ethiopian culture. They’ve collected over 7000 designs from 85 different Ethiopian tribes to use as inspiration for their products.

Despite Muya’s successes, it still faces a big challenge: Brand Image. They’ve found that the fact they are an Ethiopian company is a liability. This is what happens: They attend trade shows in the U.S. and Europe, where buyers adore their products and get ready to place an order. Then the buyers find out out Muya is based in Ethiopia, and the buyers chicken out. The buyers will ask, “Ethiopia? Do you even have food? How can you fulfill this big order?”

And when I heard that, I sat there nodding, because of course, that false image of a 100% destitute Ethiopia IS the brand we know in America. We hear the word Ethiopia and we think of images of cracked earth and images of starving children. Because those are the images we’ve been shown since the 80′s. (I had no idea Ethopia really looked like this. Did you?)

Muya is working hard to overcome the Ethiopian bias one client at a time, but really, this is a larger problem that affects economic growth and development throughout the country. When Ethiopian businesses, large and small, are seeking investors, people are hesitant to step up to the table.

The Brand of Ethiopia is a real concern to business people there. And we had spirited conversations about how to go about changing that brand. I kept thinking of my friends in New York who brand things for a living, and wondered what they would do with a branding problem of these proportions. (Maybe that will be a future non-profit group — a branding/PR company that works to change the perception of Ethiopia on a large scale.)

The good news is that perceptions ARE starting to change. By supporting the efforts that are making real improvements, and shining a light on those efforts, ONE is helping the world to see Ethiopia in a more positive light. Ethiopia’s brand IS changing.

The Brand of Ethiopia changed for me as soon as I walked out of the airport in Addis Ababa. Hopefully it’s changing for you as you read my posts about what I learned there.

I hope too you’ll notice that while I do mention the struggles, what I’m really focusing on in my reports are the programs THAT ARE WORKING. The schools that have received funding and are doing smart things with it. The hospitals and clinics that are successfully helping their communities.

Why focus on the successes? Because we want the funding to keep coming until it’s not needed anymore. We want to demonstrate that it’s worth it.

When I say doesn’t ask for your money, just your voice, I mean it. And right now is one of those times where they need your voice. They need you to take one minute and sign this petition to keep the funding coming. One minute of your time to add your voice. Thanksgiving week is a busy week, but please take one little minute to sign the petition, and show your gratitude for the people who are working hard to do so much with so little.

P.S. — was relaunched yesterday with an impactful new design. Go check it out — and be sure to scroll down.


In October, I spent a week in Ethiopia at the kind invitation and expense of The ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan, advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and malnutrition, particularly in Africa. ONE works to convince governments to invest in smart programs that save lives. While there, I was with a group of parenting bloggers to observe how the organizations for which ONE advocates are effecting real change in Ethiopia.

ONE doesn’t ask for your money, just your voice. If you’re moved by anything you read or see here, or on the ONE blog, please consider adding your voice, and join ONE.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elin Tidbeck November 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Thank you for this interesting and eye opening post Gabrielle. I’ve signed the petition and hope everyone else that reads this will do it also. Lets try and make a change!


2 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Thank you, Elin!


3 sofija November 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I enjoyed all of your posts about your trip to Ethiopia. I hope this wasn’t the last one. It seems like the programs you visited make an effort to be sensitive to the local culture.


4 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I think they do make an effort. Aid can be tricky. It’s not really about going in and saving the day. That doesn’t work. It’s more about research and training and putting policies in place that allow the citizens to access jobs, health care — and food (when crops fail or weather interferes).


5 Michelle B November 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Really powerful and touching. Through my own personal journey it’s a country I’ve become deeply connected to and so your postings have had a great resonance for me. Thank you, Gabrielle, for bringing focus to this beautiful country and it’s amazing women .


6 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Michelle, thank you for letting me know the posts resonate with you. I’m so glad to hear it!


7 Chloe November 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Thank you for this post! I have always loved the LemLem designs and wondered where they came from. What you wrote makes me want to visit Ethiopia myself. I happily signed the petition and reposted on my facebook page :)


8 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

High five for spreading the word, Chloe!


9 Positivelybeaming November 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. While I know that my perceived notions of what life is like in many developing nations is probably out-dated and incorrect it is disappointing to hear how negatively this impacts everyone. Who would have thought that a country’s brand needed a face-lift in order for its citizens to catch a break. I too hope we can change that. Your stories and pictures make all the difference by showing what works and for that I think the entire country must be thankful. It must have been truly special to watch those fabrics come to life before your eyes. Just like the people behind them.


10 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I felt the same way when I learned about their experiences at trade shows. I’d never thought about it like tha!. Ethiopia especially has been the poster child for African Aid since the 80′s — and Africa has over 60 countries — so that’s a huge burden to bear.


11 Miss Lindsey D November 23, 2012 at 8:20 am

This is a beautiful post Gabrielle! As we head into a season so filled with spending – often just done out of habit and without much thought – it is so important to remember we can make big choices with those dollars and do something for the good of others.


12 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm

So true! Along those lines, I’m working on a post for #GivingTuesday — a gift guide featuring products that help give jobs to those in needs. I’m really enjoying putting it together.


13 Ellen W November 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm

This post made me think of my parents who were missionaries in Ethiopia in the 1970′s. They were married there and my mom’s dress was hand woven along with the bridesmaids. My parents look back as the years spent there as some of the best in their lives.


14 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Even the idea of a hand-woven dress is beautiful. I’m sure the actual dresses were gorgeous!


15 Amy November 24, 2012 at 11:18 am

I’m confused…are you advocating purchasing from J Crew as a way to help? That’s not even close to fair trade.


16 Design Mom November 25, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Not at all, Amy. I’m just trying to make this factory feel less foreign and faraway. Yes, it’s a small factory, and yes, everything is made by hand on fairly primitive looms. But you can see some of the products they make at J.Crew. — which is close to home and familiar.

This particular factory told us they don’t have an online shop. (If they did, I would definitely link to it.) They deal mostly in wholesale.


17 michelle twin mum November 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Beautiful post and so heartbreaking that they cannot get ther brand out in there in a big way – we’ll keep praying.

Mich x


18 Attu Worku November 27, 2012 at 9:58 am

Dear Gabrielle,

Thank you for your post. As an Ethiopian and a founder of an education and community development organization, I face the challenge of the Brand of Ethiopia. I do believe it is changing and will continue to change as long as we work towards progress and we have folks like you who are dedicated to share their stories.



19 liz bohannon January 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

LOVE THIS POST. Our little community in East Africa refers to our efforts as {Re} Branding Africa. We face the same challenges in Uganda and are so passionate about sharing a story of hope and success. Thanks for sharing about Muya. I will be in Ethiopia next month and am going to try and set up a visit!



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